In this generation Europe tore itself apart again. One estimate of the population of Germany was 17 million in 1618, and 8 million by 1648, at the end of the 30 years war. However much it was, there was a dramatic drop of the population, in part directly due to the war, and partly to its side-effects: famine and disease. It must have been brutal. This was not industrial-scale bombing, impersonal drone attacks or any of the other horrors of modern wars, but close-in fighting with flintlock muskets and a kind of spear called a pike. Even bayonets had not yet been invented. So assailant and victim looked each other in the eye.
And as was the case with the first world war, the trigger for this barbarity was a family squabble in the ruling dynasties of Europe. Religion added an extra incentive for the fighting, but France, a catholic country, fought with the protestant side because it suited their territorial interests.
Although the 30 years war ended in 1648, fighting continued with civil wars in France and England. Both of these started as uprisings against the perceived unreasonableness of the monarch, but had very different outcomes. In protestant England the king was taken to trial, found guilty and beheaded. A dictatorship was established for the rest of this generation. I remember hearing a song in a Yorkshire folk club in the 1970’s. The chorus went:
With pike and musket, fife and drum
We will make them Royalists come.
Stick a musket up their bum,
The lads of Wakefield town!
In catholic France the rebellion was suppressed. The young Louis XIV remembered the experience and had no love for Paris. He established the court of Versailles where he consolidated the state in himself, and visited the city a few miles away very rarely once he came into power.
Such experiences threw open the question of what kind of government would be in the best interest of all. Not surprisingly, some took a gloomy view of human nature. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes came to the conclusion that humans can’t be trusted to work together without giving up some of their personal freedoms to an individual or group of individuals. The alternative, of anarchy was, in his view, too awful to contemplate:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan)
Better the lesser evil of abdicating some personal autonomy to a centralised power, he believed.
Others took a different view. During the English Civil War groups felt empowered to explore their own ideas of how they would like to live and express their religious beliefs. The Levellers, the Diggers and the Quakers all appeared in this generation. The Levellers and Diggers inspired future generations, but are no more. The Society of Friends, as the Quakers call themselves, still flourish today.
French catholic Rene Descartes had fought in the war. After its end he moved to the freer land of protestant Holland, where he also contemplated what truth he could hold to, whether there was anything he could say an unequivocal ‘yes’ to. Through his desperation he came to the insight that even if he dismissed all the ideas that had been put into him in his life, something still remained. This something was the ability to think, to contemplate. This simple fact was confirmation to him of an indisputable truth. This fact of being able to reason confirmed that he was alive: ‘I think, therefore I am’. As with the writing of Spinoza in the following generation, this statement came from to his own individual experience rather than deferring to any of the established religions.
Another clever young man in Holland, Christiaan Huygens, built on Galileo’s insights from a couple of generations earlier to develop a working pendulum clock. This was so much more accurate than existing clocks that minutes could now be measured. Previous clocks only showed hours, and some church bells rang out the quarter hour. (The word ‘clock’ comes from ‘bell’, as in the French word for bell, ‘cloche’). Mr Huygens also described the rings of Saturn, and discovered its moon Titan. A recent space probe to Saturn was named after him.
Away from the theatre of war, in Rome, a startling piece of art was created. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa pushed back the boundaries of human expression. In its context in an alcove of the small church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, it soars. It is hard to believe that the sculpture is carved in hard, heavy marble.